All works are being done by the Gunas of Nature, but due to delusion of ego, people assume themselves to be the doer. (B.G. 3:27)
Egoexists in all men. It would be impossible to have a physical body without ego. Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa, a divine incarnation, would leave the slightesthint of ego in himself otherwise the Self or Atman would separate from the physical body. The Paramhansa would lapse into the Nirvikalpa State of Samadhi routinely, sometimes a couple of times in a single day and then would return to the phenomenal plane, an impossibility for any man except for a divine incarnation. For a normal yogi attaining the same Nirvikalpa State of Samadhi, there is no return to the phenomenal existence akin to a river once it has merged into the ocean. Sri Ramakrishna says of Nirvikalpa Samadhi, “As a piece of lead thrown into a basin of mercury soon dissolves in it, so the individual soul melts away, losing its limitations, when it falls into the ocean of Brahman.”
Ego arises in man from ignorance or Avidya of one’s divinity. Ahamevparabrahma: I am verily the Boundless Divinity is one of the four absolute truths (mahavakyas) stated in the Upanisads. “Each soul is potentially divine,” proclaims Swami Vivekananda. Avidya is individual ignorance or becoming forgetful of one’s divine identity and becoming entangled in universal ignorance and illusion called Maya.Patanjali’s Yogasutras (II.5) succinctly defines Avidya: “Avidya is taking the non-eternal impure, evil and non-Atman to be eternal, pure, good, and Atman respectively.” Why this happens is an age old question with no answer. Avidya is the result of a divine spark of consciousness (Atman) becoming involved in matter. “Progressive involution in matter deprives it of this Self-knowledge in increasing degree and it is the privation of this knowledge, which is called Avidya.” It happens as our own existence proves it; we all have a physical body and at the same time we all have consciousness of Atman. Adi Sankaracaryaclarifies, “Atman is verily one and without parts, whereas the body consists of many parts; and yet the people see these two as one! What else can be called ignorance but this?”
Ignorance of one’s divine identity, Avidya leads to ego or Asmita. Asmi means “I am,” and Asmitais “I am this.” The consciousness becomes increasingly involved in the five body sheaths, from subtle to gross, namely bliss sheath (anandmayakosha), intellectual sheath (jnanamayakosha), mental sheath (manomayakosha), vital energy sheath (pranamayakosha), and physical body (annamayakosha). The infinite consciousness eventually limits itself to become “I am this body” bound by time and space.Compiled in Patanjali’s Yogasutras (II.3), this progressive entanglement in the five body sheathsleads to the duality of likes and dislikes and a great fear of death noticed in all beings,as follows:
IgnoranceEgoLikesDislikesFear of Death
Observe a 2 year old child not yet fully identified with the physical body. If the child has been given the name Sapna, she is likely to say “Sapna is playing,” to the amused smiles of the parents. Sadly, it is the parents who are deluded and mistaken in their identity while Sapna is correctly distinguishing herself (Atman I) from the body. It is the body of Sapna playing while the “I” of Sapna is a mere onlooker. Gradually, the consciousness in Sapna becomes fully involved in the five body vehicles to the extent that Sapna now, to the approval of parents, begins to claim that “I am playing.” This ignorance of Self begins to extend to ‘my toys,’ ‘my house,’ and ‘my mother.’ The ignorance of Self or the One Consciousness is so complete that the person identifies with not only his own body but with external things, places, and people. The instant Sapna’s real nature is forgotten, the limited ego assumes control. The ego is a pseudo “I” that derives its light from the Atman. The thief, ego arrogates all work to itself and starts dictating the life of an individual. Ego is a reservoir of past experiences and memoriesreplete with innumerable desires collected from past births and present life.
Likes (raga) and dislikes (dvesha) are natural offshoots of ego.When the intellect receives a stimulus to act, then it seeks approval from the ego before acting. If the action is liked, ego consents readily. If disliked by ego, then the action is normally rejected. It is an automatic subconscious process. On a spectrum of the extremely egoistic to the least ego bound individuals, the more the ego the morethe likes and dislikes prevail. In a man of lesser ego, there may be a conflict between the intellect and ego for the right course of action. This duel is won by the intellect if the individual has some control over his ego. Swami Chinmayananda defines culture thus: “Man’s control of nature external is called civilization. His control of nature internal is called culture.” The nature or ego with its likes and dislikes is more controlled in a cultured man than a brute. A secular education replete with social refinements fails to guarantee that a person is cultured. A cultured man is one who has conscious control of his ego and allows the intellect to choose the right course of action overcoming personal preferences. On the other hand, an uncultured man is held hostage by egoistic desires and preferences in any decision making process.
While Avidya is individual ignorance, Maya is universal ignorance that veils and projects. Adi Sankaracarya describes Maya thus, “she has three Gunas known as tamas, rajas, and sattva, named after their respective functions.” An individual is under the influence of all three Gunas at all times. The relative proportion of each Guna determines the overall tendency of an individual. Sri Krishna in the Bhagavad Gitain a much earlier time describes to Arjuna the behavior of a person under the influence of tamas:
“Ignorance, inactivity, carelessness, and delusion arise when Tamas is predominant, O Arjuna.” (B.G. 14:13)
A man of predominantly tamsic nature functions at the basest level of ego. All his responses to external stimuli are based on likes and preferences dictated by the ego. He is led by inner desires emanating from ego. There is no thinking involved. It is a life lived at a level below that of an animal. Animals lack intellectual discrimination and use instinct to survive; while a tamsic man possesses intellectual capacity to reason but fails to use it entirely.
On a higher scale, a predominantly rajasic man also has strong preferences, likes, and desires dictated by the ego. Unlike the tamsic man, a rajasic man misuses his intellectual prowess to fulfill his desires based on likes and dislikes. He is cunning. He knows how to manipulate the situation intellectually to his advantagewhile appearing to be cultured. The more successful in catering to his egoistical desires and likes the more powerful he feels. He tries to find new ways of overcoming obstacles to get a desired object. The more apparent success in feeding the ego’s likes, the deeper the man sinks into the abyss of ignorance or Avidya. Sri Krishna provides the following description of rajasic action:
“Action performed with ego, with selfish motives, and with too much effort is declared to be Rajasic.” (B.G. 18:24)
While there is gross abuse of intellect towards an end, whether right or wrong, in a rajasic individual, a predominantly sattvic man uses hisintellect appropriately to discriminate between right and wrong. In a predominantly sattvic man, the intellect controls the decision making process. This does not imply that ego has no role to play. It is, as always, consulted for its likes or dislikes, however, the intellect has as strong a role to play in the decision making process as the ego. Inner conflict may arise between the ego and intellect for supremacy at times depending on the issue. Either the ego or the intellect may win this internal debate in a person lower in the sattva guna. A truly sattvic person is highly evolved where the body consciousness and ego have diminished to the point where the person begins to see the indivisible Consciousness permeating all. Sri Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita characterizes sattvic knowledge thus:
“Knowledge by which one sees a single imperishable reality in all beings as undivided in the divided; such knowledge is considered sattvic.” (B.G. 18:20)
A high level of sattva is found in rare persons belonging to the category of sants. The ego is thinned so that all actions are performed without vested interest independent of the likes generated by the ego. The intellectual discrimination of right from wrong actions plays uppermost. The normal Avidyashrinks when a sant begins to behold the same Reality in all beings and non-beings.The understanding becomes fixed that “I” does not work but is a mere onlooker of actions while the body operates by the force of the three Gunas. The person aligns his will with the cosmic will.The sant surrenders all actions to God becoming an instrument of God allowing a higher power to control all his actions.
How can this ego and ignorance be overcome? The sole prescription to remove ignorance and its consequent offshootsis to become acquainted with one’s own divine nature or God. To know Self, there exist hundreds of practices that include the paths of Karma Yoga, Jnana Yoga, Raja Yoga, Bhakti Yoga or a combination thereof. Individual tendencies and traits determine the appropriate approach that works best for each person. A predominantly tamsic person must first try to cultivate rajasic tendencies and then sattvic tendencies. GodHimself is the realguru (dispeller of ignorance) and a physical sadguru can assist in prescribing the appropriate practice. The chief requirement is a deep hunger for Self-realization along with perseverance to work towards mind purification. Sri Ramakrishna recommends the path of Bhakti or devotion as being the simplest method of God-realization during the current Yuga. “God cannot remain unmoved if you have raga-bhakti, that is, love of God with passionate attachment to Him. Do you know how fond God is of His devotees’ love? It is like the cow’s fondness for fodder mixed with oil-cake. The cow gobbles it down greedily.”
Aum Tat Sat